By Liesl M. Burkirk
Separation — A word inexorably tied in my mind to the landscape and history of Kalaupapa, Molokai. Kalaupapa is a peninsula separated geographically from the rest of the island of Molokai by 3,500 foot high sea cliffs, the tallest in the world. With all the features of a natural prison — towering cliffs to the north and pounding surf on its other three sides — the peninsula seems designed for isolation and separation. It was an ideal site, the authorities of the 1860’s thought, for a settlement for those with Ma’iho’oha’awale, “the separating sickness,” called leprosy in haole terms. Fear of a possible epidemic caused Hawaiian authorities to quarantine anyone who showed signs of leprosy. The disease cause swelling, desensitization, deformity, and sometimes eventual loss of affected body parts, most often including fingers, toes, lips, ears, eyes, and noses. Contagious and debilitating, leprosy separated the patients from society even as it physically separated their appendages from their limbs. Those with symptoms resembling early stages of the disease were forced to leave their homes with no prospect of ever returning. Between 1866 and 1949, Kalaupapa was considered a living tomb for the approximately eight thousand patients who were torn from home and family and sent there for lifelong exile to Makanalua, “the given grave,” as the peninsula was once called. Some of those exiled were reported by friends and neighbors to authorities for a $10 bounty. Some who actually did not have the disease were mistakenly sent but after exposure could not return home. Some were pushed off the ships that brought them to Kalaupapa and left to swim ashore alone, a fitting beginning to their future lives of isolation.
The patients of Kalaupapa — mothers, children, husbands, Hawaiian, Chinese, haole — were banished to a world without law. In the early days of the settlement, before medical personnel or religious leaders volunteered to come to Kalaupapa, the patients were left to themselves with no organization, assistance, or guidance. Tales of the comparatively healthy patients dominating those whose leprosy was further advanced, of drunkenness, debauchery, and lawlessness made exile to Kalaupapa an even more frightening prospect for new patients. Theirs was a life of true separation, of pain, of fear, and of hope only in an afterlife free from the helplessness of their situation. From this hope, many patients grew to depend increasingly on God and invited missionaries from Catholic and Lutheran congregations of Honolulu to bring religion to Kalaupapa. As the influence of these churches became stronger in the settlement — through the work of selfless volunteers, many of whom later contracted the disease — the anarchy of the earlier days slowly dissipated and was replaced by a sense of ohana (family/community_ and a collective effort to find happiness despite the pain and loss.
Following the discovery of sulfa treatments for leprosy in the 1940s, the authorities gave the patients freedom to more elsewhere. The shameful disease was no longer their jailer, yet few chose to leave. The peninsula imprisoned their hearts, captivated their memories, and held their lives in the way of its pervading peace — peace wrought from the tears of loss in a town that weeps from a century of sorrow and cradles the souls of those welcomed into the family of isolation. Today they choose Kalaupapa, where the ‘aina— the total environment of land, sea, and sky — pulses with peace and serenity, where the scent of dew-kissed flowers perfumes an air that breathes almost audibly with the soothing rhythm of the surf.
The patients, while at peace with themselves and their exile, are very wary of outsiders. Those who remain in the settlement today are older — the last patients were sent there in the mid-1940s and patients were not permitted to have children (there was even a sterilization program in place for many years) — and most have no memory of life anywhere else. Kalaupapa is their only home and the other patients are the only family most of them know. The State of Hawaii has promised them that Kalaupapa will remain theirs for the rest of their lives. With this assurance and their history there, the patients have highest priority in the settlement. Yet Hawaii’s government is anxious to preserve Kalaupapa’s peculiar history and landscape and in 1980 accepted a National Park Service proposal to create a National Historical Park there. Though the park is not open to visitors, the Park Service has rangers stationed in the settlement to begin the process of restoration and protection in preparation for a time when access to the peninsula will be freer. With the increasing influence of the park staff and awareness of the government’s plan for Kalaupapa, the patients worry that the peace they have made from themselves might be taken from them. But, they are determined not to let themselves be banished again.
To ensure their rights will be protected, the patients elected a council to mediate with the various government agencies now present in the settlement. The council establishes and enforces strict rules for visitation to the peninsula to better protect the patients’ privacy. Tourists may visit only if accompanied by a resident or official from the settlement, and then only if the visitor is over sixteen years old. Those who run the daily mule and bus tours of the peninsula must agree to strictly control who the bring into the settlement, where they go, and how long they stay — the general rule is that without a specific permit from the council, visitors cannot stay longer than four hours on the peninsula. The Park Service, State Department of Health, and other organizations who co-manage affairs on the peninsula must obtain permission for every personnel position and visitor they wish to bring in. Staff members with families or spouses who are not employed in the settlement cannot live in Kalaupapa, but must hike down the trail for work each day and back to go home at night.
As a volunteer in the Sierra Club’s Hawaii Service Trip Program, I was a member of a service group the National Park Service invited to Kalaupapa in the summer of 1996. The ten group members were approved by the Patients’ Council to work on restoration and clean-up projects for two weeks under supervision by the park rangers. In our time there, we met a few of the patients who still reside in the wooden houses of Kalaupapa and became somewhat acquainted with the subtle power of their erstwhile prison to capture the hearts of those who experience it.
The only land access to Kalaupapa is a steep trail of twenty-six switchbacks carved into the steep cliffs after the quarantine was lifted. The trail weaves through kukui, java plum, bayan, and haole koa trees down to the peninsula. As we followed the hoofprints of donkeys down the cliffs, the intensity of colors around us surprised me; the lush patchwork of green leaves overhead, the deep red dirt which billowed with each tromping step, and the variegation of blues and greens in the deep ocean below were more vivid and palpable than anything I’d ever seen.
The sea cliffs were formed millions of years ago when a tectonic shift or disturbance of the subterranean hot spot cause half of the then-circular island of Molokia to crumble and plummet into the sea. Weathered by wind and rain, the towering rock face left in the wake of the landslide collected a profusion of plants, blanketing the cliffs in a kaleidoscope of greens. In the water below, the slide created rock canyons and valleys which were further shaped by the perpetual motion of the rolling waves. These arches and peaks, chasms, and caves also gathered life about them — spinner dolphins, monk seals, green sea turtles, and myriad fish all careening around in the clear, crisp water. Thousands of years after the landslide a small but steady volcanic eruption pulse layers of magma up from the ocean floor to create the peninsula of Kalaupapa. With the turn of each switchback, we could see the results of these natural phenomena more clearly and came closer to the peninsula we had heard so much about. I was glad that we had come by the trail to Kalaupapa and had the chance to experience the true distance of the peninsula separation.
Kalaupapa has a small airport, but it serves mainly cargo charters bringing supplies to the settlement. Larger items are brought in on the yearly barge. The patients await that “Christmas in July” eagerly, anxious to see a new car to replace the old station wagon whose door has been held on by duct tape for six months, the materials for the fence they need to protect their garden from foraging deer, or the headstone for their best friend’s grave that has lain unmarked for several months. But barge day comes only once a year and the rest of the time the settlement depends on the small cargo planes to bring in necessities.
To make our hike down less cumbersome, we sent most of our tools and supplies by plane before taking our flight into Kaunakakai and a bus from the airport there to the trailhead. At the cargo airport in Honolulu, we saw a bumper sticker that read “Molokai stay friendly. You like try?” — Hawaiian creole (or pidgin) for an invitation to experience the unique hospitality of the people of Molokai. Going there, you almost unconsciously adopt their easy, laid-back style.
Perhaps it is this hospitality combined with the simplicity of life in the settlement which makes it such a captivating place. The speed limit signs read “suggested speed 15 mph.” There are no stoplights. Most of the streets are not divided. People leave their car keys in the ignition. Houses and rooms are not locked. The library is left virtually unmonitored with just a book on the table where you can write down what you have borrowed or brought back. There are no motels or shopping centers in Kalaupapa and only residents are allowed to shop at the one grocery/convenience store in the settlement. Elaine’s, the only establishment which might be characterized as a restaurant, is nothing more than a couple of picnic tables in somebody’s backyard with a TV, some freezers full of ice cream, and an older lady sitting reading a magazine who make sandwiches and pours drinks for the customers. And permeating the picnic tables of Elaine’s, the nightly dance classes, the ramshackle homes, and the slow driving cars is a deep contentment, a sense of timeless continuity.
The patients can be seen puttering around in their jungle-like gardens, sitting watching the sunset from their porches, fishing off the pier, or talking along the street. Having lived there for so long, they have formed close association and deep friendships. Together they have created the ambiance of closeness that typifies their lives — they are close to each other and close with themselves. They are comfortable with the legacy of their disease and want only that — not pity or shock– from those they meet. Once you show that you are not looking at their disfigured hands and faces, that you are willing to talk to them, share with them, and serve them, they welcome you as one of their own.
Our accommodations in Kalaupapa were rooms, once reserved for the nurses, in a Quonset hut at the very edge of the settlement, where we would not be in the patients’ way or invade their privacy. Yet as we walked through the streets of the settlement on our way to work or to the cool water after our work was through, we noticed the patients watching us ad wondering what to think of us. Some of them would just look, others would wave or stop to talk as they passed by in their cars. With each encounter, we felt our separation from them slowly begin to disappear.
After our first afternoon there, when Jed asked one of the patients if he could borrow a fishing pole, fresh mahimahi kept appearing on the kitchen counter right before dinner time. After we talked to some of the patients and nurses who stopped by the barbeque we had at the park superintendent’s house, we were invited to come line dancing at the social hall. We often noticed those we’d met going out of their way to watch us work — sometimes bringing an “extra” case of cold soda they were “trying to get rid of” with them. After we finished restoring the old He’iau (ancient Hawaiin temple) inside the dormant volcano crater, we were invited to meet with and hear the stories of some of the residents who had particular interest in that project. Some of them were not only interested in our work, but also in us personally. They welcomed us eagerly into their homes and their spirit took root in our hearts.
For me, Kenso Seki, at age eighty-seven one of the oldest patients, in one of those. He boasts of being the oldest Catholic altar boy in the world, former Scoutmaster for the settlement’s boys, and self-appointed mayor of Kalaupapa. His hands are shrunken and twisted, but his eyes are bright and his humor high. With a laugh lurking on his disfigured lips, he tells the story of how he came to Kalaupapa as a small boy and caused so much trouble in the Boys’ School that Father Dutton make him sleep in a room attached to the teacher’s quarters. He and his best friend, Harold Lee, another former Boys’ School student, still think of themselves as youthful troublemakers and do their best to fill that role. One of their favorite pranks is to startle the deer that feed nightly in the settlement’s open fields. He drives up slowly with his truck’s headlights off, then stops the truck and beams the lights straight at the deer, which freeze for a moment then scatter quickly in all directions. Though Kenso is legally blind, he loves to drive, so there is an unwritten rule that if you see Kenso’s white Toyota truck on the road, you get off. He gauges his position on the road by driving to the right until he feels his tires go off the asphalt and then veering to the left.
Since the quarantine was lifted in 1969, Kenso has become one of the most well-traveled of the patients, and pennants from each of the cities he has visited paper the walls of his brightly painted house. He loves to talk about all the places he has been and the many important people he has met. He was able to fly to Denmark for the dedication of a memorial to Father Damien — one of the first and most devoted of the missionaries who worked with the patients until they lost their own lives to leprosy.
When I looked at the bright pennants, newspaper clippings, and photos on his living room walls, Kenso told me some of the great stories of Kalaupapa. He shook his head while remembering Christmas Eve in 1995 when former electrician and leprosy patient Norbert Vierra died and a malfunction that same night cause a blackout on the entire peninsula, including the Coast Gaurd’s lighthouse on the west shore. “Nobody knew how to fix anything, so we had a black Christmas!” he exclaimed, eyes sparkling with humor.
He told me of the changes that have taken place for the patients in the years since 1923 when he first came to Kalaupapa. He wanted me to understand that the patients don’t feel bitter or sorry for themselves. They have forged a sense of belonging in the community of their collective separation. They have dissolved the isolation which sent them there and make their separation a common bond between them. They have taken the discord of their once-tattered existence and built a harmonious life on and with the land. Once their prison, Kalaupapa is now the stage for their liberation from the harsh tragedy of their past. Because we chose to listen and accept, we were enfolded by their belonging, including in their ohana, and encompassed by their deep serenity.
Looking down at the settlement from Pala’au State Park at the top of the trail, where we waited for our ride back to the airport, I felt curiously as if I had not escaped a prison, but wrought one in my own heart, a prison where the unity of heart and ‘aina, the beauty in separation, the loneliness, dignity, and aloha implicit in the spirit of Kalaupapa were to be locked in the remembrance and held closely. The land of separation gave life to the unity of our group and gave meaning to the loneliness deep in each of our souls.
Below me, I saw the buildings of the settlement clustered along the east shore of the peninsula and realized that the Kalaupapa I had just come to know would soon be no more. Just as upon the death of the last patient, the settlement will become a tourist park and cease to function as it has, the land itself is slowly erasing the signs of a disappearing civilization — closing the separating gap caused by human presence there. Vegetation is swiftly repossessing the land around buildings fallen into disuse. The objects — chairs, clothes, utensils, and old cars — left behind by those who have escaped the prisons of their disfigured bodies, have rusted and deteriorated so they are nearly indiscernible from the pebbles of the shoreline. Nature seems eager to reclaim what was once hers before the settlement has even finished its sad history. In the melody of the surf caressing the stones of the beach and the whispering of the leaves outside the windows of the Quonset hut lies the secret rhythm of Kalaupapa — the pathos of ages past and the peace purchased of separation.